A good ol' fashion cross-divisional SEC throwdown is happening on Saturday when the South Carolina Gamecocks travel to College Station to take on the Texas A&M Aggies. The Gamecocks (4-6, 3-4 SEC) are coming off a disappointing 20-15 home loss to Appalachian State but still have a mathematical opportunity to go bowling with two games left on the schedule. For the Aggies (6-3, 3-2), this may represent the last realistic opportunity for them to pad their regular-season victory total with road games left to play against No. 4 Georgia and No. 1 LSU.
Perhaps a fair judgment on South Carolina's season to date was exemplified in the home loss to the Mountaineers — wasted opportunities. If not for mistakes, turnovers, and sloppy play at times, the Gamecocks might already be bowl eligible with wins against North Carolina and Appalachian State. Now the team must buckle up the chin straps and come up with its first-ever win in College Station and then find a way to end a five-game slide to in-state rival No. 3 Clemson.
After losing three of its first six games, all to top-10 teams (Clemson, Auburn, and Alabama), life for Texas A&M has been great. Jimbo Fisher's Aggies are on a three-game winning streak, notching a road win against Ole Miss and back-to-back home victories against Mississippi State and UTSA. The challenge this week gets tougher against a hungry Gamecocks team fighting for a postseason invitation and possibly for head coach Will Muschamp's job.
South Carolina at Texas A&M
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Texas A&M -11
When South Carolina Has the Ball
All eyes will be on how true freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski rebounds from the loss to Appalachian State. Hilinski was the Gamecocks' entire offense against the Mountaineers, finishing with 325 passing yards and a touchdown, but his pick-six before halftime and overthrow of Bryan Edwards for the potential game-winning score in the fourth quarter stains the performance. Thrust into the fire, Hilinski has had an impressive freshman season. Entering this game, he's fourth in the SEC in passing (2,077 yards) with 11 touchdowns and a 60 percent completion rate in nine games played.
With leading rusher Tavien Feaster sidelined due to a groin injury, USC managed just 21 yards on 27 attempts against Appalachian State. The fall from grace was drastic considering the team's 184 yards per game average prior to last week's game. Not helping matters this week is that backup running back Rico Dowdle and offensive linemen Dylan Wonnum and Jaylen Nichols are all banged up.
Through the adversity of injuries, a tough schedule, and a roster dotted with underclassmen, Texas A&M's defense has held up well against the run this season, holding teams to 142 rushing yards per game. But that has not been the case recently, as the Aggies gave up 250 yards on the ground to Ole Miss and 239 vs. Mississippi State. A&M's strong suit has been against the pass, as the defense has held every opponent under 300 yards and given up a total of 12 touchdowns through the air. Alabama (four) and Mississippi State (three) are the only two teams with more than two touchdown passes in a game against the Aggies' defense.
When Texas A&M Has the Ball
An offense that had relied solely on the play of quarterback Kellen Mond has started to become balanced again. Over the last three games, the Aggies are averaging 213 rushing yards with a high of 267 against the Roadrunners last week. The uptick comes after the previous three-game stretch of only averaging 90 per contest. The turnaround can be attributed to freshman tailback Isaiah Spiller finding his footing in the offense, putting up 90 against Mississippi State and exploding for 217 against UTSA.
The season-long dependency on Mond has allowed for their star quarterback to throw for 2,214 yards and 17 touchdowns, but it has often made the offense one-dimensional. Mond had big games early in the season against Lamar (410 yards) and Auburn (335) but has averaged 215 passing yards over the last three games with five total touchdowns as teams are keying on him. Mond has three fantastic receivers to connect with when given time in Jhamon Ausbon, Quarney Davis, and Kendrick Rogers.
South Carolina's weakest point on defense has been against the pass, as the Gamecocks are ranked 11th in the SEC and 69th nationally in that category. Teams are averaging 228.6 yards per game through the air and another 136.6 on the ground against the Gamecocks. Sophomore middle linebacker Earnest Jones has had a standout season for USC with 75 tackles. Mond will want to stay away from Israel Mukuamu when he does throw, as the sophomore safety's four interceptions are tied for the conference lead.
If fans want to know how players on a team feel about their head coach, seeing how they respond in a fight or give-up moment is a tell-all. South Carolina has not taken that next step forward under Will Muschamp, who has a 26-23 overall record (15-16 in the SEC) in his four seasons with the Gamecocks and is in real danger of missing out on a bowl game. The last time USC didn't go bowling was in 2015, which was Steve Spurrier's final season.
When unranked teams come into College Station, they usually lose. The Aggies took a contested 26-23 win in Columbia last season, and this one should be another slugfest.
Prediction: Texas A&M 31, South Carolina 24
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.